Over the last couple of years, there seems to have been a higher rate of erecting billboards by atheists, humanists, and other secularists than previously. Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, selected among the large number of Big Missives a subset of 18 “finalists” in a contest. You get to vote for five among these, and the billboard with the most votes wins.

Reading though the comments on that post, I was reminded of the billboard-related conversation that happened here in Minnesota after the Minnesota Atheists put up their billboard. Also, there was quite a controversy after the American Atheists put up a terribly offensive and racist (according to some) billboard.

The main criticism of the Minnesota Atheists billboard was that the color was garish, the type face was absurd (it looked like, but was not, Comic Sans) and the use of a cute baby picture was cheap. In other words, the Minnesota Atheist billboard looked just like one of those awful anti-abortion billboards we see all around Minnesota, especially Outstate (in rural areas). In fact, the Minnesota Atheists billboard looked almost like it was a parody of those Christian billboards. Which is why …. hey, wait a minute! Maybe it WAS a parody of those Christian billboards! Maybe THAT is why the color was garish, the font comic, and the baby cute!!!1!

Having it pointed out that the Minnesota Atheist billboard:

Was a parody of a typical regional fundie billboard:

… did nothing to slow or even adjust the criticism, which probably says more about the criticism than the billboards.

Most of those critiques were about style and design, and as I think I’ve made clear, they were hardly valid since the design was for the billboard to be a parody of a bunch of really horrid billboards. Nonetheless, those critiques are being applied to the other billboards on the Friendly Atheist site and they are generally reasonable. It may be that Atheists make relatively poor billboards. If that is true, there may be a reason for it. The typical billboard campaign probably exists outside of a broader marketing strategy. Sure, the Minnesota Atheists, American Atheists, etc. etc. may see themselves as having a broad strategy, but do they have a specific, yet comprehensive strategy for a particular campaign that may run across several media over a couple of years to meet a certain set of objectives? I don’t think so. I think these organizations have a larger plan and then they sometimes think up putting up billboards, and the billboard effort is a self contained campaign that is part of that larger organization-wide effort.

What may be needed is something in between. One of the more common criticisms of the billboards, both now and earlier when Mn Atheists put up theirs, is that the message was too complex, wordy, that the billboards were doing too much work. This may very well be the case. It seems to be that a lot of marketing campaigns have elements that do not attempt to reify the entire message, but rather, add to it bit by bit, allowing designers to have a more dramatic impact because they are allowed to use fewer elements in a more effective way. Perhaps the next “campaign” by any of these organizations should not be a billboard campaign, but rather, a broader messaging campaign that incorporates a number of media efforts including billboards. That of course would be far more expensive than a simple billboard campaign, but perhaps that problem can be addressed by getting the sundry and divers organizations that put up billboards now and then to coordinate their efforts a bit.

I would also like to point something else out: With the Minnesota Atheists billboard, there was a very open design and review process during which a number of people participated, but much of the post hoc critique came from people who did not participate, but rather, showed up to yell at us abut how the horse had gotten out, rather than coming by earlier to close the barn door. As it were. That may well have just been bad timing, but next time I think it would be worth adding extra effort to bringing in people with firm opinions early on. If they are part of the process from the beginning their wonderful ideas would be incorporated, and later, their critiques more meaningful.

In any event, you should go to The Friendly Atheist and vote for your top five. The winning organization gets a big prize of $100 bucks, which I assume comes right out of Hemant Mehta’s pocket, so thank you Hemant.


  1. #1 Ellen
    December 28, 2012

    It was incredibly obvious to me (and very funny) that the MN Atheists billboard was a takeoff on the “pro-life” ones. It was great! The only reason I can think of for folks to have missed that point is that perhaps they don’t get outside the city much? Most of the “pro-life” billboards are along I-35 north of the Cities and smaller highways farther out.

    There is one by the railroad yards at Snelling in St. Paul about how abortion could be killing someone who could have cured cancer. Is it just me who always thinks, “Or it could be killing the next serial killer?”

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 28, 2012

    Ellen, exactly, I think that is what happened.

  3. #3 G
    December 29, 2012

    Yo Greg- Here’s the problem, and here are a few solutions:

    Problem #1: Human brains have difficulty representing conceptual negatives. Example: Visualize the scene “The dog did not chase the red ball.” Most people will see a red ball in that picture. More effective: “The dog barked at the squirrel.” No red ball in that picture.

    Problem #2: The “brand identity” for the word “atheist” needs a complete make-over. At present its first association is “communist” and its emotional connotations are “cold” and “hard” rather than “warm” and “comfortable.”


    First, go at it indirectly and do it long enough and consistently enough to shift cultural attitudes. Here’s a theme for an advertising campaign: “Science gave us this.” Examples (and yes I’m aware that I’m conflating science with technology, but this is necessary for the campaign):

    Open the campaign with billboards showing an iconic photo of astronauts walking on the Moon, next to the American flag they planted there. Headline: “Science gave us this.” At the bottom: “www.ScienceGaveUsThis.org.” (Greg: register that domain ASAP, or I’ll have to do it for you;-) And that’s all.

    Next in the series: Billboard with photo of someone getting a glass of water from a kitchen faucet. Headline: “Science gave us this: safe drinking water.” Same URL at the bottom.

    After that: Photo of iconic incandescent electric light bulb. “Science gave us this: electricity.” Next: Photo of iconic mid-20th century dial phone and current-generation “smart phone”: “Science gave us this: communication.” Next: Photo of mother pouring a teaspoon of prescription medicine to give to her kid who is sick in bed. “Science gave us this: medicine.” Next: Photo of desktop computer and tablet: “Science gave us this: computers and the internet.” Next: Farmer standing in front of field, with combine harvester working in the background. “Science gave us this: abundant food.” Etc. etc., doing this with such items as “automobile with family going on vacation,” and “jet airliner above the clouds at sunset,” and “man toweling himself dry in the bathroom, or mother with her toddler in a bathtub full of bubble-bath (hygiene),” and “family in supermarket aisle (abundant food again) and so on. At some point, run one that shows a colorful NASA photo of deep space: “Science gave us this: awe and wonder,” and likewise with photos from undersea explorations showing colorful fish at a reef, and a colorful microscope slide showing plant cells, and possibly other examples.

    Notice the combination of types of imagery. Some of it refers to things that are essential necessities. Some of it ties necessities together with strong emotional attractors. Some of it refers to modern conveniences that people use constantly. Some of it points to the feeling of awe, which is direct competition with religion on that axis.

    At the website “ScienceGaveUsThis.org,” a new installment for each billboard, explaining something about the fields of science that made each of these things possible, and how scientists in each of these fields think and work. Contrast with descriptions of “life without science,” for example high infant mortality, filth and disease, hunger, inconvenience and backbreaking labor, etc.

    Three to six months into the campaign, use the word “evolution” ONCE on the website, and that’s all (for now!;-)

    Six to nine months into the campaign, in conjunction with the imagery from deep space, discuss the age of the universe and observations such as the red shift, cosmic background radiation, and so on.

    One year into the campaign, drop the very first hints that none of this requires belief in a deity. Do it with a “soft” quote from a famous scientist that isn’t demeaning to religion but merely asserts that science has made all of these discoveries and produced all of these results without need of religious explanations of nature.

    Keep the campaign going with these overall themes and cycles of associations and occasional hints. The website should also have a “donate” link, and when sufficient funds are available, start running 15-second spots on TV, that reiterate the points made on the billboards and website.

    The goal here is to get people to recognize that science and its technological fruits are essential to their lives, and if they use the latter, they are accepting the former by their own actions.

    This will work. It will shift cultural attitudes starting with the fence-sitters. It will also tend to isolate and delegitimize anti-science beliefs: “you can’t object to science if you use technology.” The first sign of its success will be when the religious right reacts to it in some way. But since the campaign is “soft,” any reaction by the religious right will immediately be seen as an over-reaction, about which they can be called out and forced to defend themselves or lose.

    The religious right is already in retreat, and influential Republicans are already talking about ditching them. Now’s the perfect time to launch messages that will contribute to marginalizing the religious extremists into irrelevance.